In the history of this blog, I’ve gone after lots of religious folks. I’ve mocked
lots and lots of christians, a few muslims, some Jews, some newagers, and even one
Today, I’m doing something that’s probably going to get me into trouble
with a lot of readers. I’m going to mock a very well-known atheist. No, not PZ.
As much as I disagree with PZ, as far as I can tell, he’s consistent about his
Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait has been a major voice for skepticism and
a vocal proponent of atheism. He has, quite rightly, gone after people of all stripes
for foolishness and silly supernaturalism. He’s frequently talked about how silly he
thinks religion is. All well and good.
But Phil just really
screwed up. And I’ve got to call him on it.
He was arguing with a post-modernist. My opinion of post-modernism is
mixed, but mostly very negative. There’s a kernel of value at the heart of it,
but most of the practitioners of postmodern analysis have turned it into
something fit only for mockery.
The argument that Phil got involved in was about “meaning” and “objectivity”.
His opponent said “Gravity may well exist. But if we can’t describe it, it’s
hardly objective. And we can’t possibly know its meaning”.
That’s classic postmodernism. Gravity may exist; and then moving
into very fuzzy zones of intention and meaning. What does gravity
mean? To even ask the question is to create a huge amount of strange
context. Why should gravity mean anything? It can only mean something
in a universe where gravity had some intention. And that, in turn, is a way of
embedding some kind of theism into the context of the discussion: meaning is
an artifact of consciousness; if there’s no consciousness that created gravity
for a purpose, than how can it mean anything?
So far, I’m with Phil, when he says:
I think this is completely wrong. It’s objective whether we can
describe it or not. Gravity exists. Since the Earth has been orbiting the Sun
for 4.55 billion years — a good 4.549 billion years before humans were around
— we can be pretty sure gravity is objective.
But it’s the last word he used that got me really scratching my head.
“Meaning?” Of gravity? Why should gravity have a meaning? It’s a law of
nature, not a piece of art.
You can look for meaning in the Mona Lisa, or a sonnet, or in a child’s smile.
You can argue over the meaning with someone else, and you can both disagree
and yet both be right. When something is created with artistic intent — or
just simply created by the human with or without that intent — it’s open to
But the Universe itself as a physical object isn’t like that. You can look for
meaning if you’d like, but the Universe is a semi-random collection of energy
and matter, and based on all the evidence I have seen was not created with
intent. A nebula is beautiful in form and color, but is simply a collection of
particles, photons, fields, and motions. It has no meaning outside of your
personal interpretation of it. But whether you think it has emotions and is
alive or not, it will still do what it does: make stars. Nebulae have been
doing this for billions of years before us, and will continue to do so long
after we are gone.
You might even ascribe purpose to a nebula: its job is to create stars. But
that’s what’s called the Pathetic Fallacy: ascribing human characteristics to
inanimate objects. The nebula doesn’t want to do anything. It just does things
according to the laws of physics.
But then, he goes off the rails.
You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say
we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, no choice but to obey
whatever laws of physics command us. And I cannot discount that, but I suspect
we are richer than that. The laws of physics are not binary; they don’t say to
us “Behave this way or that.” There are huge, perhaps even uncountable numbers
of choices that lie before us. It’s not just a matter of cranking all our
atomic states and field equations through a black box and determining what we
must perforce do; there are probabilities involved, so that our actions may be
predictable in a sense but are not fundamentally determined in advance.
That is the difference between us and a nebula. We can choose. And that’s why
a post-modernist relativism can work when describing Mozart, but will fail
when applied to a black hole. The event horizon of a black hole cares not what
we think of it.
This is what I call “sloppy dualism”. Classic dualism is the belief that
there are two separate parts to our beings: bodies, which are physical, and
spirits, which are something else. Phil has been very clear in the past:
he utterly rejects religious beliefs in “spirits” or “souls”; dualism is
just religious nonsense. But the implication of what he’s saying tries to sneak
dualism in by a back door. It’s almost like a “god of the gaps” argument;
a “free will of the gaps” kind of dualism. He’s claiming to argue in favor of
a purely scientific universe, with no room for the supernatural. But he tries
to sneak a little bit of space in to the fuzziness of how things work to make
room for his own free will.
Physics – the realm of scientific description and exploration of way the universe
works, using mathematics as its tool – describes how all matter and energy interact.
Without dualism – that is, without believing that there is something fundamentally
different about consciousness, something that can’t be described by the
mere interactions of matter and energy – it makes no sense to talk about
choice for people, but not for other collections of matter. If you’re
truly a materialist, then there’s no fundamental difference between a person and
a black hole in terms of physics. We’re both made up of some complex mix of matter
and energy, interacting with other bits of matter and energy in all sorts of
What Phil is doing is asserting that we are, somehow, different. He starts
off OK; the way that physics appears to work, things are not completely deterministic. There’s
a lot of fuzziness and probabilistic nondeterminism.
But moving from non-determinism to choice is a problem. If you’re consistent,
and you reject non-physical entities and influences in the world, then you
are no exception.
There’s no scientific reason to believe that we have free will.
There’s no buffer zone that we’ve found in any of the physical laws of how the
universe works to make room for free will. There’s non-determinism; but there’s
not choice. Choice is the introduction of something, dare I say it,
supernatural: some influence that isn’t part of the physical interaction,
which allows some clusters of matter and energy to decide how they’ll
collapse a probabilistic waveform into a particular reality.
There’s nothing wrong with believing that there’s something more than
the simple physical to the world; something that allows this thing we call
consciousness. But it’s not a scientific belief. And for all his hedging, Phil
is clearly saying that he believes that the math of physics isn’t,
and can’t be all that describes how the universe works. And once you
make room for that kind of supernatural, it’s hard to explain just why
your kind of supernatural belief is perfectly rational, and someone
else’s kind of supernatural belief is silly.
The funny thing is that at the end of the day, I agree with him. I’ve mentioned
before that I’m a theist. The reason that I’m a theist is because I believe
in consciousness. But I suspect that Phil would be horrified to be put into the same
bucket as a theist, believing in some kind of supernatural phenomena. But that sure
seems to be what he’s saying.